55 pages 1 hour read

Sara Ahmed

Living a Feminist Life

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Living a Feminist Life (2017) is a feminist theory text by British-Australian scholar and writer Sara Ahmed, an academic working in the fields of critical theory, feminist philosophy, queer theory, and critical race theory. In the book, Ahmed discusses awakening to a feminist consciousness, inhabiting the roles of feminist killjoy and willful subject, and engaging in diversity work. She discusses the many obstacles the feminist faces, while also examining the consequences of such a feminist life. She proposes a return to lesbian feminism as the best way to live an effective and fulfilling life as a feminist killjoy. Lastly, in the two conclusions, she offers advice on how and why one should build their own killjoy survival kit, and she provides her personal killjoy manifesto.

This study guide uses the paperback edition of Living a Feminist Life, published by Duke University Press in 2017.

Content Warning: The source material addresses issues of sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination at length and in detail, including personal accounts of discrimination as well as literary analysis of books and films that contain detailed accounts of discrimination and violence, both literal and figurative.

Summary

In the Introduction, Ahmed establishes her personal context as a feminist and a woman of color working from a philosophical framework based on critical theory, gender theory, critical race theory, and feminism. After giving a brief definition of feminism as “the movement to end sexism, sexual exploitation, and sexual oppression” (5), which Ahmed will expand on throughout the text, she argues that feminist theory must come not only from academic settings but also from women’s lived experiences. Ahmed also introduces the terms “feminist killjoy” and “willful subject,” which become central figures in her arguments.

In Part 1, Ahmed explores the process of becoming a feminist—the ways experiences lead one to feminist consciousness and feminist ways of living. Chapter 1, “Feminism is Sensational,” argues that one develops a feminist consciousness first from physical and emotional sensation. This begins when a feminist body feels uncomfortable in the world, as if they are somehow wrong. When someone notices this wrongness, they notice other things as well. For Ahmed, this noticing is where the feminist killjoy appears.

In Chapter 2, “On Being Directed,” Ahmed describes directionality as both the direction one walks, and commands imposed on people. She uses the metaphor of traffic to illustrate the way direction can be both created and enforced by the movement of crowds, which creates paths people are expected to follow. One such path is happiness, which has the force of command when a girl is not only expected to behave a certain way, but to submit to that behavior happily. When a girl resists this path of happiness, she becomes a “feminist killjoy.”

Ahmed argues that resisting this path requires willfulness, which she examines in Chapter 3, “Willfulness and Feminist Subjectivity.” Ahmed describes willfulness  as disobedience, but also as having too much will, and being unwilling to follow the flow of traffic. She uses two examples to illustrate this: the character Maggie from Mill on the Floss, and the Grimm fairy tale, “The Willful Child.” A disobedient girl’s refusal to stay buried, shown through her “willful arm” pushing out of her grave, becomes a central metaphor throughout the book.

In Part 2, Ahmed discusses what she calls “diversity work,” which includes both the work people do to make institutions more inclusive, and the labor of simply existing within institutions that are not inclusive. Chapter 4 focuses on the first kind of diversity work, as Ahmed uses examples from her own and others’ experiences on diversity committees in university settings. Chapter 5 discusses the second kind of diversity work, particularly as it relates to issues of intersectionality—the idea that different kinds of oppression based on gender, race, sexuality, disability, and socio-economic status are all inextricably linked and inform each other. In Chapter 6, Ahmed describes her second central metaphor of “brick walls” in detail. These walls are the obstacles that diversity workers come up against in their work.

Part 3 discusses both the consequences of living a feminist life as one who comes up against these brick walls, and Ahmed’s argument for the best strategy to survive this kind of life. In Chapter 7, “Fragile Connections,” Ahmed argues that constantly hitting these walls causes fragility. This fragility leads to objects, relationships, and bodies that break. However, this also leads to what Ahmed calls “feminist snap,” in Chapter 8. Snap is the breaking point, the moment when a feminist cannot take anymore and resists their own breaking. Ahmed uses three feminist movies, A Question of Silence, Nine to Five, and Born in Flames, to illustrate the ways a feminist snap can happen.

In Chapter 9, Ahmed offers her answer to living a feminist life and surviving these moments of fragility and snap. She argues for a return to lesbian feminism, a mode of feminist thought that advocates for women to turn their attention away from the concerns of men and instead focus all their energies on other women. As before, Ahmed also argues that this lesbian feminism must be intersectional. From this intersectionality, she would build a feminist collective army.

Lastly, in two conclusions, Ahmed offers concrete and practical methods for living as a feminist killjoy. First, in “A Killjoy Survival Kit,” she gives a list of ten items (some tangible, some not) that a feminist should gather to help their survival in the fight against white male institutions. Finally, in “A Killjoy Manifesto,” Ahmed writes a feminist killjoy manifesto in 10 principles of what she is and is not willing to do. These 10 principles summarize the main arguments throughout the book.

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